Grant program opens to help Pa. farmers with bird flu losses; threat remains in wild waterfowl | News


LANCASTER, Pa. – The spread of bird flu has subsided at Pennsylvania poultry farms, but as the state opens a $25 million grant program to help farmers and integrators recoup losses, officials warn that the coming migration of wild birds could lead to more outbreaks this fall.

State and federal officials gathered on Wednesday at a family farm in Lancaster County to announce the grant awards and speak about collaborative efforts to contain and eliminate outbreaks at commercial facilities.

There are no active cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) at Pennsylvania farms, according to the state and federal agriculture agencies.

Restrictive control areas around 17 farms with infected flocks in Berks and Lancaster counties were lifted earlier in July. However, the general quarantine order remains in place to aid a swift response should the virus resurface in commercial and backyard flocks.

Poultry exhibits at fairs and farm shows are also still prohibited.

Since the first case of bird flu in Pennsylvania was confirmed at a commercial farm on April 15, more than 4.2 million birds were destroyed to prevent the spread of the virus. That resulted in an estimated $34 million loss in poultry and cleanup alone, according to Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. A combined 91 farms were impacted to some degree.

“When you draw lines from the first index (affected) poultry flock, there’s 300 farms. This could have been a complete disaster,” Redding said. “We were able to move swiftly and suppress it.”

The US Department of Agriculture reimburses farmers for the lost chickens and ducks along with cleanup and testing, Redding said. The state funding, a bipartisan measure included in the 2022-23 state budget, will help recover lost income.

“These are farms that have gone without a paycheck for 100 days,” Redding said. “Most of us can’t do that.”

Treasurer Stacy Garrity pledged to “cut those checks right away” once Department of Agriculture reviews and approves applications.

Nationally, HPAI has been detected in 38 states, affecting more than 40 million commercial birds.

Though there’s been no detections of HPAI in commercial or backyard flocks in Pennsylvania since June 2, the virus was detected in 13 varied waterfowl across 10 counties on July 14 and 15.

The spread among wild birds continues across the country, too, reinforcing the fact that the threat, while currently low, hasn’t been eliminated. In fact, state officials sprayed the wheels on vehicles visiting the Lewis farm and required visitors to wear cloth booties over their shoes.

Dr. Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania’s state veterinarian, said it will take time for the current virus strain to dissipate in the wild. He said it took 18 to 24 months to dissipate in Europe and South Africa.

He said he’s confident in the biosecurity capabilities in the US, noting how an outbreak in Pennsylvania in 1983 led to the loss of 17 million birds at a cost at the time of $63 million.

“The technology we have, the preparedness at the industry level, the laboratory, all of those things really came together. It’s going to be really challenging through the fall, winter and spring migration to ensure that people continue to take biosecurity seriously. It’s our secret weapon. It’s our best tool,” Brightbill said.

The first round of the HPAI Recovery Reimbursement Grant Program is open to farms within the infected zones. Applications are due Sept. 10. It will cover up to $100,000. Losses beyond that may be further reimbursed on a percentage basis. The second round expands to farms beyond the infected zones. Information will be available at agriculture.pa.gov.

Heather and Mike Lewis, on whose Mount Joy farm Wednesday’s press event was held, were awaiting delivery of a new flock of chickens in the spring when they learned a farm had suffered an outbreak. Their poultry barn remained empty and was just recently repopulated. They were able to rely on other income and wait it out, they said.

“It was a helpless feeling while we waited,” Heather Lewis said. “Our friends who had chickens, they worked through the whole thing. It was a lot more work for them, a lot more work to keep their flocks safe. We were blessed in that way and I wished I could help them.”

Pennsylvania’s poultry industry is valued at $7.1 billion and is responsible for 26,600 jobs.

Redding pointed to the internet as perhaps the most invaluable tool to respond to the latest spread of bird flu including real-time sharing of lab results and data between Penn State University and state agriculture officials.

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